Kurdish battle for independence in Iraq admirable, but not feasible

The global levers of power tilt away from Kurdish independence from Iraq.

Kurds attend a rally to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Duhuk, Iraq  (photo credit: ARI JALAL / REUTERS)
Kurds attend a rally to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Duhuk, Iraq
(photo credit: ARI JALAL / REUTERS)
Tomorrow, Monday, September 25, marks a historic landmark in the modern history of the Kurds in Iraq. A historic referendum is planned to be held in the Kurdish autonomous region in Northern Iraq in order to determine whether the Iraqi Kurds will declare their independence in the regions of the Kurdish autonomy. The public sphere in Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has been rejoicing in recent weeks, as the referendum has been celebrated in the region, both on the official and the public levels, as a crucial historic moment. However, reactions from the KRI’s neighbors and allies as well as in the Kurdish arena, both in Iraq and in the rest of ‘Larger Kurdistan’ are raising questions as to the degree to which the Kurdish referendum will be binding.
Statements made by KRI officials in recent weeks and months clearly denote the outlines of the Kurdish national narrative which justifies the holding of the referendum and the declaration of independence. This narrative is based on several assumptions concerning the history of "Greater Kurdistan" and KRI. The basic argument deals with the historical theft of the Kurdish homeland brought by the "Sykes-Picot border" drawn by foreign and external forces to the region and the right of the Kurds to bring about correcting past wrongs. The second claim is that the Kurds were the most committed factor in the Iraqi state in the years since the fall of the Ba'ath regime and sought to turn it into a civil, federal and democratic state. The Iraqi state itself chose to become a religious and sectarian state and thus alienated the Kurds from the north.
One may identify with the Kurdish people’s battle for independence and for the recovery of the independence they had been deprived. However, constitutionally speaking, Iraqi Kurds have no right to move towards a unilateral separation from Iraq. The 2005 Iraqi constitution ratified the existing reality in the middle of the passing decade, in which the KRI has already taken shape and has won American protection. Thus, it granted the Kurds their right to administer their ‘Iqleem’ (autonomous region) within the federative Iraqi state, while preventing them from breaking unilaterally into independence.
This is the constitutional argument on which the Iraqi government relies in its peremptory opposition to the Kurdish referendum and the belligerent statements by senior Iraqi officials, condemning it and threatening to react constitutionally and even militarily in case it passes. This also the legal grounds on which Iran, the UN and the US all declared their opposition to the referendum and the dismantling of Iraq. All of these powers invested heavily in the Iraqi state over the passing decade and a half, each for its own interest, and none would like to see their expensive project collapsing now following a Kurdish unilateral initiative to separate.
Still, there seems to be no country whose reaction to the referendum in the KRI is more interesting and relevant than the northern neighbor, Turkey. In spite of its anti-Kurdish image, during the last decade Turkey has become the  KRI’s most prominent and important political and economic partner. Ankara has formed a significant strategic and economic alliance with Erbil, based largely on joint interests in the struggle against a common enemy, the PKK, the Kurdish national militia active in Turkey and patron of the Kurdish PYD party, administering Rojava, the semi-autonomous region in North-Eastern Syria.
Alongside this political partnership, an economic symbiosis has also developed between Ankara and Erbil: since 2003, the Kurdish economic market has undergone a process of turning into a one-product market based solely on oil. The outcome of this process is that Iraqi Kurdistan currently produces no significant product or economic service, and throughout this period, all production and manufacturing industries, such as agriculture, heavy industry, and services, have become virtually extinct in the KRI. In order to export oil, Iraqi Kurdistan relies on an oil pipeline deployed between the Kirkuk oil fields and the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, which acts as the KRI’s sole outlet to the sea. On the other hand, in the last few years, in the absence of real alternatives to importing and exporting to and from the region, the region is defined as a "captive market" of the Turkish economy.
Therefore, while the military threat posed by Ankara to its unruly partner to the south, as demonstrated in the Turkish military maneuver along the Turkish-Iraqi borders last week, is understood in Erbil as the lesser evil. Full closure of the mutual borders with fully fledged economic sanctions pose a much more imminent and effective threat on the KRI. The Kurdish authorities understand that they are the side in the equation that has the most to lose, and that losing, in this case, may that may harbor problems for the future of their national project.
Idan Barir is a research fellow in the Forum for Regional Thinking and a PhD candidate in history at Tel Aviv University.